Saturday, July 31, 2010

5th Vlog - Information Sharing Groups in Lyantonde, Uganda

Grant introduces the first video blog created by Ahabwe Michael, Director of ICOD, which highlights 2 leaders of the Agriculture Information Sharing Groups in Lyantonde, Uganda. Flavia and Dan, both farmers and ICT Trainees discuss the benefits of having access to the Internet and their hopes of using this information to improve agriculture in their communities.

All Vlogs related to the progress of the Lyantonde Internet Center from this point on will be created by ICOD staff. We look forward to watching!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Termination of Our Relationship with Prince Primary School

Dear Project Focus Family,

We are writing to fill you in on a very disheartening yet critical decision that Project FOCUS has had to make in the past couple of months. As supporters of Project FOCUS, you have trusted us to make responsible decisions with the money, time, and ideas that have been invested into our work. We had been operating according to the plan that when the Lyantonde Internet Center begins to make a profit those proceeds will be given to Prince Primary School to assist with both teacher salaries and the school lunch program. However, due to the dishonest and deceptive actions of the school’s Headmaster that we have slowly become aware of over the past several months, we’ve decided to terminate our relationship with Prince Primary School and use the projected profits from the Internet Center in a way that will benefit more than one community in the surrounding area. This blog post seeks to summarize the details that have unfolded so that our supporters can understand the reasons for and the weight of this decision.

Reasons for the Termination

Our relationship with Prince Primary School began in 2007 during our series of Art and Art Therapy Projects that were conducted in Lyantonde. Some of the artwork that many of you have seen at our past exhibits was created by the students at Prince. Our ties to the Prince Primary School go way beyond them being the beneficiary of profits made from the Internet Café thus making it difficult to believe and to admit that we’ve been deceived by their leader. Our suspicions began to arise when Grant returned to Lyantonde in February of this year to begin implementation of the Internet Center. Despite many attempts, Grant was unable to locate the Headmaster for months. The staff of ICOD, our local community-based based partner, hadn’t heard from him either. His wife informed Grant that he was visiting a friend; others told him that he was caring for his sick mother, and he was even notified that the Headmaster was dealing with some business matters in neighboring Tanzania. This went on, and on, and on. The teachers at Prince also claimed ignorance to his whereabouts. Although this seemed strange, at this point we had no reason to assume that we would be unable to continue our relationship with Prince Primary.

We were perplexed. In order to move forward we needed the participation of the Headmaster to continue with the Lyantonde Internet Center as planned. So eventually ICOD decided to investigate further and went into the community to put their ear to the gossip wire. They asked shop owners, taxi drivers, youth, and older folks what they had heard about the missing Headmaster. The inquiry produced a unanimous reply – that he was in prison. Initially nobody seemed to know (or wanted to say) why he had been detained. However we soon came to learn that he had been put in jail for defaulting on loan payments to a micro finance agency. We then discovered that this was only 1 of 5 lending organizations who wanted to bring him to court for defaulting on loans reaching back to 2007. It took a while for Project FOCUS to digest this news and to face the fact that we now had a very difficult decision to make.

What Does This Mean for Project FOCUS and ICOD?

ICOD and Grant sat down and hammered out these key points and questions:

1) These loans had been taken out in the name of the school but it was clear that they weren’t being invested there. Teachers were not being paid and the existing lunch program was in shambles. Although being told repeatedly that Project FOCUS would not donate money to Prince Primary School directly, the Headmaster often requested money from Project FOCUS insisting that they were in a very desperate situation. So where is the money that was borrowed in the name of Prince Primary School?

2) In retrospect this was not the first red flag regarding the Headmaster’s questionable behavior when handling money. In 2007 and 2009, he resisted accounting for money spent on events at Prince Primary, and when he finally did there were several figures that didn’t seem to add up. In 2008, there was a large community rift when the Headmaster’s failure to provide students with identity cards (that their parents already paid for) for a national exam resulted in their nullification. The 12 students were forced to retake the 7th grade exam. In retrospect, Grant recalls the community’s accusations of foul play, but at the time Project FOCUS trusted the Headmaster’s intentions. Now we regret not having investigating further.

3) Over the years that we have been cultivating a relationship with Prince Primary School we celebrated the fact that it was a community owned and operated establishment. The Headmaster reassured us many times that this was the case. However, after some investigation, we are now aware that it is located on the Headmaster’s private property – not a plot of community owned land that was donated to the school.

4) The Headmaster, his staff, and his wife directly lied to ICOD and Project FOCUS about his whereabouts during the time that he was detained.

5) Given all of this information, is it responsible of ICOD and Project FOCUS to channel money into an institution that has a dishonest leader? Our commitment was to the Prince Primary community as a whole, not the Headmaster, so it is deeply disheartening to think that the students and families will not be able to benefit from the Internet Center project. But, it is equally disheartening to think that we could be contributing to the Headmaster’s personal gains while the students and teachers of the school receive little to no benefits from the proceeds.

After a careful review of the facts and several discussions weighing the possible consequences of our choices, the decision was made to terminate Project FOCUS’ relationship with Prince Primary School.

Soon after we made this decision we were informed that the Headmaster had been released from prison and we scheduled a community meeting at Prince Primary to inform everyone of our decision. The Headmaster was made aware of the meeting but chose not to attend. It was difficult enough to make our decision, but planning to explain it to the students, parents, and teachers who hadn’t done anything wrong was grueling. Michael, the Director of ICOD, explained our stance in local languages, which was met by several community members expressing similar sentiments of mistrust. Although disappointed, for the most part everyone seemed very understanding of our decision to terminate the relationship.

Upon hearing our decision, the Headmaster immediately contacted Grant (the first time in the three months that he had been there), sounding shocked and requesting to meet. Grant met with the Headmaster twice, once with ICOD (which resulted in physical threats to Michael) and once alone (which resulted in mud-slinging). After these meetings, and events since, Grant along with Project FOCUS became even more convinced that we had made the right decision.

Moving Forward

Since 2007, Prince Primary has been just one of several local communities Project FOCUS has been involved with. Others include the network of People Living with Aids from the Lyantonde Hospital, and farmers groups from Kyewanula, Lwensinga, Kitazigolowa, and Luwama villages. The aim of our organization, and partnership with ICOD, has always been to support locally driven initiatives that are making positive changes within the community. While we were re-evaluating our relationship with Prince Primary we were naturally building upon the relationships with these other groups through their participation in the educational programming of the Internet Center. It has been decided that the eventual proceeds from the Internet Café will be directed toward these groups. We will do our best to rely on our past experiences, especially those with Prince Primary, and the advice of our Ugandan Board of Advisors to ensure that this is done in a responsible and transparent way.

Difficult Lessons for a Young Organization

Project FOCUS does acknowledge the efforts that the Prince Primary students and staff put forth throughout our relationship, and agree that it is very disheartening not to see those efforts bear fruit. However, any blame assigned to why we cannot move forward should be clearly stated as a lack of trust in the Headmaster, and not any fault of the students or community at large. Unfortunately, the scope of the problem is beyond anything Project FOCUS has the capacity (or the right) to address.

That being said, we have learned countless lessons regarding the unintended consequences that can arise while developing relationships with institutions in real need, and the lengths that individuals may go to in order to capitalize on the possible benefits. We also agree that there are contributing factors to this situation that could easily be credited to Project FOCUS’s lack of foresight and experience. For this we sincerely apologize and promise to continue to learn and adjust from our mistakes to refine our approach.

We apologize if this seems like an over-simplification of the situation. The complexities that arise in this work, especially the slow and cumbersome approach of community building, could never be revealed in a single blog post. Please contact us if you have any questions or concerns regarding this information.